What We Talk About When We Talk About the State Fair

By Michaela Dwyer

“…Also, we’re getting a bucket of fries.”

This is my younger sister reminding me of my promise (conscription?) to attend the North Carolina State Fair with her. The Fair and I have always had a complicated relationship. I haven’t been since middle school, and I have distinct visual memories from that period—a sort of “Michaela vs. the Fair” image: Me, dizzily walking through flashing lights and numbing electronica and everyone else chomping on inexplicably large turkey legs. I wore a Patagonia jacket freshly decorated with “Kerry/Edwards” campaign stickers—I was convinced my family and I were the only happily expressive Democrats at the Fair—and pecked at a funnel cake. I was overwhelmed by the crowd and responded in my default way: judgment. I picture myself standing in the middle of the Midway, brow furrowed as I gazed upon the panoply of squalor and splendor and spectacle. An image, my mother recently reminded me, that she remembers I assumed even as a five-year-old State Fairgoer who was only interested in the petting zoo. “You just don’t really like being surrounded by a lot of…things,” she said, gesticulating in the air surrounding her head.

The 2012 N.C. State Fair. Courtesy of the News and Observer.

A few days ago, I declared the following to a friend: “I love the State Fair, which also means that I hate it.” We were discussing the annual gathering in Raleigh, ending this weekend (conveniently, just in time for me to go, and to both love and hate it!). On the one hand, I was striking a stupid conversational dichotomy, but on the other, I think I was teasing at something deeper: a conflicted attachment to a statewide gathering that most people I know describe as “kitschy” and “campy.” Now I can’t erase the feeling—and I don’t think this is unrelated to my being a college graduate—that when I go I must go as ethnographer. David Foster Wallace conveys a similar anxiety at the outset of his 1994 nonfiction account of the Illinois State Fair: “I’m fresh in from the East Coast, for an East Coast magazine. Why exactly they’re interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.”

Foster Wallace goes on for approximately 19 more pages, detailing various aspects of the Fair. There is the physical: “The fairgrounds are a Saint Vitus’ dance of blacktop footpaths, the axons and dendrites of mass spectation, connecting buildings and barns and corporate tents.” And then the metaphysical: “the state fair’s animating thesis involves some kind of structured, decorated interval of communion with both neighbor and space—the sheer fact of the land is to be celebrated here, its yields ogled and its stock groomed and paraded. A special vacation from alienation.” Of course, Foster Wallace is writing about what he later determines is a singularly Midwestern experience: a State Fair serving as just the right annual activity for a culture living in relative rural isolation. An escapist event, though communal at the core.

Food vendors at the N.C. State Fair. Courtesy of ourexcursions.com

I’m wondering how our State Fair fits in. After all, North Carolina is a state of both rural and urban sustenance, and the Fair intentionally reflects that spread, from agricultural showcases to the Village of Yesteryear’s artisanal crafts to promotional materials from UNC-TV and political groups to the Midway itself—which may be the Fair’s great equalizer, uniting all Fairgoers under the commercial pursuit of deep-fried goodies and gifted goldfish. In my State Fair-avoidance-ambivalence I was unaware that the event has recently begun to adopt themes. This year’s is “North Carolina’s Homecoming.” The rhetoric is a bit heartlandish: “The great thing about the fair is that it draws people of all walks of life and from all over North Carolina. For 11 days, we’re one big melting pot for the state…And that’s what the fair is to us. A big family reunion.” Radical inclusiveness, as savory as a deep-fried Oreo (I can only imagine; I’ve never had one).

I’m eager to explain my resistance to the Fair as a resistance to its political or moral agenda. But this is complicated by my increasing sense that it doesn’t actually have one, other than an eleven-day stint of radical inclusiveness. Besides, how do you create policy, let alone a mission statement, for an event so celebratory of human diversity? The State Fair will probably always exist this way, as a “slice of life” (how my mother has always characterized it) in North Carolina, inviting us to exist with it, and with each other, for one or two or eleven days every fall. As Foster Wallace concludes in his piece, at the State Fair, “the real spectacle that draws us here is us.”

But this connective impulse, all caramel-apple-melting-pot joy, obscures the weirdness and difference of individual experience. Each of my past visits to the fair hold the same imagery of Foster Wallace’s press tour, circling the fairgrounds and waving sardonically to vendors on a tractor going 4 mph. Cultural tourism for the college-townie customer, able to extract the camp and kitsch of the State Fair when I want it. Assuming the participant-observer ethnographical approach at the Fair runs the risk of too much observation, too little participation—even as, with my $8 ticket and bucket of fries, I’m participating just the same as anyone else. The Fair is a unique and powerful event in its ability to both highlight and sublimate cultural difference, all in the space of an October day. Then we leave, and for 374 more days we don’t see the folks we almost too conveniently brush up against in line for the Himalaya ride or Buncombe County’s Best Cakes. This is an unusual community model, but is it necessarily a bad one? As the Insider, maybe I’m supposed to tell you. But as you already know, I consider myself a State Fair outsider. Ask me next week, but my response might be influenced by prolonged heartburn from a blooming onion. For now, I’d rather have my onion (or bucket of fries) and eat it, too.